The story of Ron, Galia and Tenufa Bakehila
By Maayan Hoffman
Meet Ron,* a soldier in the Israel Defense Force combat engineering corps. On active duty, Ron specializes in mechanic work on some of the army’s most important vehicles. A quiet genius, as those who know him describe him, Ron was hiding more than his smarts. He was hiding inconceivable poverty.
On his days off, Ron went home to cracked and peeling walls and a broken sewage pipe that had flooded the front lawn and was seeping into the home. His kitchen had few working appliances, the floor was crooked, and the roof was leaking.
“It is a sad state when one of our soldiers goes home on leave and this is what he goes home to,” said Noga Fisher, head of communications and resource development for Tenufa Bakehila – Building Hope. The organization helps some of the poorest families in Israel with basic renovations and repairs, such as repairing moldy, peeling and crumbling walls and ceilings, leaky roofs, hazardous electrical and plumbing problems, door and window frames, loose tiles, kitchen counters and cabinets and more.
Ron’s commander, as per standard protocol, had paid a visit to Ron’s family. When he discovered Ron’s single mother – the father had died a year before – with diabetes that led to an amputated leg, living in such treacherous conditions he reached out to Tenufa Bakehila. The director of Tenufa’s home repair program, Yaron Arad, took immediate action.
Arad went to the home, took photos of filth and destitution, and posted them on social media asking for help.
“We normally only invest around $1,500 dollars in repairs for any given house,” explained Fisher. “Yaron knew this house would cost much more.”
Within days, support came pouring in from donors in Israel and abroad. Three separate companies donated kitchens (two are being used for other projects), a roofer committed to providing materials, a plumber stepped up and several contractors and other volunteers offered to help.
The team worked on the home for three weeks, instead of the usual up to three days, completing the project late last month. The family, who asked that their full names not be used, said they had never been so grateful.
“What they could not pay us, they would try to make up in sandwiches and cold water,” said Arad. “When Galia,* the mother, came to see the house she had no words. The community really rallied around this soldier and his family.”
While Ron’s case is extreme, finding homes not too dissimilar to Ron’s is relatively standard, explained Gabi Nachmani, who founded Tenufa 25 years ago as a project within Livnot U’lhibanot, an educational institution in Tzfat, a natural extension of his community activism as a teenager growing up in a disadvantaged area of Jerusalem. Today, Tenufa is Israel’s largest home repair program and the only one to take a holistic approach to family rehabilitation.
Nachmani explained that in many cases the homes the organization repairs are those that were given to new immigrants from Ethiopia or Russia as part of their Aliyah. However, once the homes are under private ownership, the government cannot help to repair them. Many of these families don’t have – and never succeeded to earn – the funds to make basic repairs. They also cannot afford to move. He said sometimes the poverty is a result of a family’s poor choices. More often, it is the result of unfortunate life circumstances, illness or death.
According to Fisher, clients are referred to Tenufa by municipal social services. The organization started in only three cities and today does work in 11 cities: Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, Binyamina, Hatzor, Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem, Hadera, Or Akiva, Pardes Hanna, Ramla and Lod. To date, Tenufa has repaired 4,5000 homes.
“We are not making them dream homes,” explained Fisher. “We are making their homes safe and minimally livable.”
Fisher told about a recent repair for an elderly woman who had been living with one working electrical outlet for more than five years.
“She was living in the dark,” said Fisher.
Another time, the organization repaired 72 homes on the same block in Jerusalem. Their efforts led to neighborhood-wide improvements. Fisher said that residents started taking care of the neighborhood better, they formed neighborhood committees to pressure the government to re-pave the road, plant a community garden, and more. Home prices went up and lives improved, “but it all started from those basic home repairs,” Fisher said.
Tenufa is funded predominantly by donors from the United States and Europe, Fisher said. Major funders include Hjelp Jodene Hjem, Matanel Foundation and JNF UK. She said that even with the support the organization currently receives, Tenufa is still unable to respond to a third of the cases referred due to financial constraints.
A few years ago, Tenufa added social workers to their team to help treat and refer those in most need.
Arad said that while carrying out repairs, his contractors discover the problems behind the walls.
“It is usually not just electrical outlets or plumbing issues,” Arad said. “We open the closet doors and see what they have – or don’t have – there. We find the teenager’s drugs. We are in the house and we understand what is going on.”
Said Nachmani, “We are on the only ones in Israel doing what we do.”
*Names are changed to protect the family’s privacy.